PHOENIX -- They were the magic years, almost mystical now that they're shrouded in time.
They were the early days of the Edmonton Oilers -- "without question," the happiest years of Wayne Gretzky's career.
Whenever Gretzky conjures up his memories of that era, which is often, the guy who also appears in those retrospective mental pictures is Mark Messier, the legendary leader who retired yesterday, the last playing survivor of the World Hockey Association.
The two were known to one and all in the hockey world as Gretz and Mess. On occasion, Messier was refered to as "Moose" but it never really stuck. They were just Gretz and Mess, the two dominant forwards in the game, playing on the same team but rarely on the same line, even though in the early days Messier was a left winger.
At one point, they lived in the same apartment building. Their parents were friends. They were children in wonderland, kids barely out of high school conquering the hockey world.
"His family are great people," Gretzky said yesterday, "and they lived in Edmonton, which was great. His grandmother used to come to every game, every team function, every Christmas party.
"It was a pretty special group. He was a big leader of it. He was a unique person.
"He really truly enjoyed every part of being a hockey player -- being with the guys, being in the locker room, being in the back of the bus, enjoying a big win. Everything you could conceivably think about as being a part of hockey, he loved."
That's why, Gretzky said, Messier stayed on as long as he did, playing more games than anyone in NHL history except for Gordie Howe.
"I've never seen a guy like that," Gretzky said. Then he reflected. "Maybe Gordie Howe. Gordie didn't ever want to retire and that's how Mark was: I want to play forever. He never wanted to quit. I know it's going to be a tough day for him, being officially retired."
As far as Gretzky is concerned, Messier's evolution was one of the primary reasons the Oilers became a dynasty. The first time they went to the Stanley Cup final, they were swept by the New York Islanders who won their fourth consecutive Cup in the process. The line of Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Mike Bossy was dominant.
"When Mess came in to the league from the WHA at 17 he was kind of raw," Gretzky said. "He was just power and speed. But he developed soft hands and really learned the game, and passing the puck. When Glen (Oilers coach and general manager Glen Sather) moved him from left wing to centre his career really went to a different level. We didn't have a guy to match up against Trottier. That always hurt us. Mess was able to stand up to that challenge, and that was a huge reason that we ended up winning.
"He really made himself into a playmaker. At first, he was more a goal scorer -- go down the wing and snap the puck -- but he became a good playmaking centreman.
"One of the reasons he was able to play so many years was that he developed into such a talent. I don't think he had that natural ability at the beginning."
Messier was a leader of legendary proportions and probably the first true power forward in today's sense of the phrase. The Oilers would send out Gretzky with his will-of-the-wisp artistry followed by Messier with his bone-crunching brute power -- and occasional exhibition of such pure meanness that he scared many an opponent.
"He used to scare me in practice," Gretzky said with a laugh. "He played with such a fierce competitiveness that sometimes I'd think, 'Geez, I hope he doesn't forget it's practice.' "
He never did. But he never lost that competitiveness either.
Messier's departure from the game marks the end of a glorious era.
THE DEAL WITH ... GRETZ AND MESS
A look at the successful partnership of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, who retired yesterday after 25 seasons:
- With the Oilers: The two teamed to win four Cups in the 1980s.
- With the Rangers: Their second partnership lasted just one year as Messier left for Vancouver following New York's run to the Eastern Conference final in 1997.
- The stats: Messier scored 109 playoff goals, 13 fewer than Gretzky, but won two more Cups -- with the Oilers in 1990 and Rangers in 1994.